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The Decline of Higher Ed Under Pataki

Not all of Pataki's appointments have acted in SUNY's best interests, and a small number of them have been charged with improprieties and illegal actions. Earlier this year, for example, State Inspector General Roslynn Mauskopf quietly released a report that found two Pataki appointees guilty of violating state law by awarding the governor's next-door neighbor a choice construction contract at SUNY Old Westbury [see Wayne Barrett's "An Albany Whitewash," Village Voice, April 9]. Pataki appointees Michael Clemente and Ellen Biggane—who admitted fabricating a memo to cover up the scheme—were fired as a result. Clemente claimed that SUNY chair Thomas Egan and trustee Randy Daniels had urged him to grant the construction job to the neophyte contractor.

While Pataki was assembling the team that would help him "revolutionize" SUNY, he was also pursuing his financial goals for the university. In his first budget, his proposed cuts to the system were historic in scope. He sought to slash its $1.5 billion budget in 1995 by $290 million, more than 31 percent. The proposed cuts sparked a mini-revolt at SUNY, with busloads of students, faculty members, and administrators pouring into Albany and protesting the cuts. Then-chancellor Bartlett threatened that the governor's proposals might force a $1600 tuition hike (which would have made it the nation's most expensive public university), along with the elimination of 120 campus programs and the shrinking of another 600 statewide. But the system's sprawling 64-campus structure ensured that many state officials had something to lose if the SUNY campus in their district were to be hurt by Pataki's cuts. A budget battle ensued, and the legislature finally acquiesced to a smaller package of cuts, which entailed a $750 tuition increase and a $4 million cut to the state's Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

Pataki:  Moving toward a free-market SUNY
photo: Office of the Governor
Pataki: Moving toward a free-market SUNY

There were more proposals for cuts in future budgets—in 1996, he proposed raising tuition by another $250, and the next year he proposed a $400 tuition hike—but the legislature always restored them. To be fair, the trend toward higher tuition and fees was well under way during the latter part of Governor Mario Cuomo's tenure as well. In fact, since that first hike by Pataki in 1995, SUNY's tuition has remained constant at $3400 a year, although fees have steadily risen. "Fees are sort of a backdoor, apolitical way to raise the costs," says NYPIRG's higher-education coordinator Miriam Kramer. In a statement faxed to the Voice, SUNY spokesman Dave Henahan touts the affordability of SUNY as compared to a select group of surrounding states, placing SUNY's tuition-and-fees bill at the bottom of the list, but recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Education show that New York's public college tuition ranks as the 14th most expensive in the country. Repeated phone calls to Henahan, the chancellor's office, campus presidents' offices, and Pataki's campaign were not returned.

The steady cuts and lack of significant increases beyond inflationary requirements have had an impact. "Since the mid 1990s we've lost more than 1000 full-time faculty lines," says Frank Maurizio, a spokesman for the United University Professions, the union that represents 27,000 of SUNY's faculty and staff members. "We've lost hundreds of classes and courses throughout the system."

Pataki has had TAP in his crosshairs since the get-go. During his first year in office, he cut $4 million from the program, and slashed one-quarter of the budget for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which funds mostly lower-income students who can least afford SUNY. In 1997, he proposed a $175 million cut; in 1999, he proposed a $133 million cut; and this year, he sought to slash the $693 million TAP program by one-third. The legislature stopped each attempt.

Many critics see Pataki's attacks on TAP and EOP as veiled attacks on the state's minority students, who disproportionately rely on such programs to be able to afford college. "We've had to halve the number of students accepted into that program this year because of budget cuts," says Joshua Shapiro, vice president of the student association at Binghamton.

Pataki's appointees focused on more than just budgets. Echoing a nationwide conservative push for "educational standards," trustee de Russy began to beat the drum in 1998 for a system-wide core curriculum—including math, science, and humanities—that would standardize SUNY's graduation requirements. Faculty members, who consider curriculum design their turf, demanded to have a say in the new guidelines, but the trustees went ahead the next year and adopted two requirements—American history and Western civilization—that the faculty didn't approve, and which reflected the conservative philosophies of de Russy, Randy Daniels, and other trustees.

With the failure of early attempts to privatize SUNY's hospitals, Pataki and his appointees—especially King—have turned to what they term "public-private partnerships" in moving SUNY's costs to the private sector. "My left eyebrow involuntarily rises when I hear the word 'partnerships,' " says Assemblyman Sullivan. "Companies don't give millions of dollars for nothing. They want something. Is that something compatible with the academic purpose of the university, or is this just going to become a training ground for these companies?"

SUNY campuses statewide have scaled new heights in the amount of private dollars secured for such public-private projects. Coca-Cola, Symbol technologies, Reuters, and IBM have all given large sums of money—some in the multimillion-dollar range—to fund research and individual projects all over the university system. "The university is faced with ever larger reductions in state funding and is forced to depend on the private sector," says Stony Brook economics professor Michael Zweig. "The university and its resources are tied to the corporate sector and the corporate sector's need to make money."

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